Monday, August 17, 2015

Sermon on John 6:51-69, for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, "Eat My Flesh"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Today we come to the 3rd and last part of Jesus’ Bread of Life sermon, that began with a challenge from Jesus to stop working for the bread that perishes—i.e. our everyday food, but to seek the food that endures to eternal life. He is that Bread of Life, He says, and eating Him do not leave us hungry and thirsty, but we find full satisfaction and eternal life in Him. Last week He pushed the point further, to unsettle or disturb the crowds who did not grasp His meaning. He drives them to see that He is the Bread of Life come down from heaven. He is from God. The bread that He gives for the life of the world is His flesh. We, on the other hand, find these words deeply marvelous, that God has come down from heaven in Jesus to feed us, to save us, and give us eternal life.
Jesus was clearly driving the crowds to crave more than just physical bread, that would leave them empty the next day. They needed a spiritual meal, a spiritual bread. But instead of making “spiritual” language sound less and less physical, or more airy, or more abstract, Jesus’ spiritual words grow ever more physical, graphic, concrete and grounded. There is a steady progression in Jesus’ words, as He hammers home His point, and the true spiritual food that He speaks of doesn’t become further and further separated from the physical—but more and more grounded in something earthly, tangible, and real. We often live with a false split in our thinking, where we don’t think of them being linked or joined. But Jesus wants them to see heaven and earth are joined in this Bread of Life--Jesus’ own flesh and blood.
When Jesus told them to eat His flesh, as the Bread of Life, this deeply disturbed the Jews. “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” Do you, or did they, think Jesus had just “gone too far?” But Jesus lays into the point even further, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” They hear Jesus’ blunt words and immediately think of cannibalism, which is clearly not what He meant. They only grasp the crude sense of Jesus’ words. There are two major points we are going to get here—what the food is, and how we eat it. First, let’s look at what the food is.
Why is Jesus making this spiritual talk, about heavenly things, so physical and earthly? Why must they realize that the Bread of Life is the flesh and blood of the Son of Man? Because Jesus flesh and blood were going to be the sacrifice for the life of the world—flesh nailed to the cross, and blood poured out for our sins. His sacrifice, His act of giving us life, was entirely physical, bloody, fleshly and real. Deeply spiritual, yet in flesh and blood. Jesus Christ, conceived by the Spirit of God, and born from the flesh of the Virgin Mary, joined God’s own holiness, righteousness—yes, His very spiritual self, to the physical body of a human being—Jesus. God is in human flesh, when Jesus dies on the cross.
When it comes to sin also, the spiritual world and the fleshly world are bound up together. But it is a negative spiritual reality, because we sin not just with our bodies, but our souls as well. Sin is spiritual rebellion against God. Jesus, physically and spiritually, destroys sin and death’s power at the cross. So this food, this Bread of Life, is Jesus, who came in flesh and blood. Eternal life and salvation come only through Him. No other eating will save us, but this Bread of Life alone.
So on to the second major point: how do we eat this Bread of Life? How do we eat Jesus’ flesh and drink His blood? Our minds may already have skipped to the Lord’s Supper, where Jesus gave His disciples bread and wine, and said “This is my body”—“This is my blood.” Our minds almost can’t help but skip there. And we will get there, but let’s not “skip over” Jesus’ first meaning here. This chapter all took place well before Jesus established the Lord’s Supper, so they wouldn’t have had that category in their minds yet, when they were wrestling with Jesus’ words, to eat His flesh and drink His blood. Well then, what does this eating mean?
We have to go back to the whole progression Jesus has been building here. Several themes are circling around and building up. Jesus is continually talking about giving people eternal life, and raising them up on the last day. The language of how they have eternal life and are raised up, goes through a climbing progression. In vs. 27-29 Jesus says that we should work for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you—and that the work of God is that we believe in Jesus. So believing in Jesus is how we get this eternal food. Then in vs. 35 Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” So Jesus swaps out coming to Him with believing in Him, as equal, and as ending our hunger and thirst.
Then in vs. 40, Jesus says, the will of His Father is “that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise Him up on the last day.” So Jesus swaps looking and believing in Him, and says these bring eternal life and Jesus raises believers on the last day. You see the progression developing in Jesus’ words, that looking, believing, coming to Jesus, and eating Him as the Bread of Life, are all interchangeable. Then again in vs. 47: “Truly, truly I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the Bread of Life.” It keeps building in vs. 50-51 where anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever, and this bread is His flesh. Finally Jesus’ words become unmistakably strong when He says, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” Faith feeds on the flesh and blood of Jesus. It believes Jesus, Living Food, flesh and blood, given on the cross. There’s no mistaking who this Jesus is. He is the flesh and blood Jesus, who died on the cross and rose from His grave, with flesh and blood intact and alive. Whoever believes in this Living Bread has eternal life.
All believers in Jesus eat of the physical and spiritual food of Jesus, when they come to Him, look upon Him, and believe in Him. We have no life in us if we don’t eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus. His are the Words of Eternal Life. This eating of faith, is common to all believers in Jesus, and must come first, before we think of the Lord’s Supper. We misunderstand if we jump past the believing in Jesus and coming to Him. If we haven’t first “stepped” here, on the true eating of Jesus’ flesh and blood by faith, then we will trip and stumble when we come to the Lord’s Supper.
Jesus saw the crowds tripping and stumbling on this teaching, as He said those words. He didn’t back down or weaken them, but delivered them full force, driving home the fleshly, the bloody nature of His spiritual death on the cross. His giving life to the world. He asked them, “Do you take offense at this?” The Greek word He used is “scandalized”—which means stumble or trip. Are you scandalized that Jesus’ flesh is true food, and His blood is true drink? Do you stumble or trip over this? Jesus asks, then what about when you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? Jesus was going to rise back up to heaven, from where He came. Were they prepared to believe that, when they couldn’t understand Jesus’ words here?
Many shook their heads at Jesus, and left dumbfounded. His crowd of 5,000 plus, was dwindling to an uncertain 12. Jesus asks them if they are going too. It’s a moment of great uncertainty, and Jesus’ disciples are struggling mightily to understand Jesus’ words. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God!” Alleluia! Peter, you got it! Peter knew that Jesus was speaking the words of eternal life, and however difficult this lesson was, they were to stay and believe in Him. He was undoubtedly the Holy One of God.
Lord bring us to understanding! Bring us to faith, and to wrestle with your difficult words, and believe, for they are spirit and they are life. Faithful, believing disciples, granted by the heavenly Father to understand and believe—disciples drawn by God to Jesus, were eating the Bread of Life. They were finding satisfaction to hunger and thirst that was deeper than earthly bread, but was filled by the in-the-world, physical, flesh and blood, spiritual, not-of-the-world, heavenly Jesus. They were eating and believing. You are eating and believing, when you hear and are drawn by the Father to this flesh and blood Jesus. You are eating and are satisfied, in spiritual hunger and thirst when you come to the Living Bread from heaven, who gives His flesh for our eternal life.
So if eating and drinking the Bread of Life happens in the first place by faith, then what, if anything, do Jesus’ words about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, have to do with the Lord’s Supper? Is there a connection, after we’ve understood faith’s true eating of Jesus? I, and many other Christians of all stripes, Lutherans and otherwise, have found it almost impossible to deny the seemingly obvious connection to the Lord’s Supper. Christians have read, wrote about, sung about the Lord’s Supper using these very words, that Jesus is the Bread of Life, given in flesh and blood. In connecting Jesus’ words in John 6, with Jesus’ later establishing of the Lord’s Supper, Christians have connected two ways in which we eat the flesh of Christ.
The first and highest eating of Jesus, is the spiritual eating of faith, which we have been dealing with here. This first eating is necessary for all Christians of all times, and children, adults, those who have received the Lord’s Supper, and those who have not yet, eat and drink Jesus by faith, which is their salvation. The second, sacramental or oral eating of Jesus, is what happens in the Lord’s Supper. This is when we eat Jesus body and drink His blood in the Lord’s Supper. This eating with our mouths, is truly spiritual and truly physical, and Jesus flesh is true food, and His blood is true drink. But eating the Lord’s Supper for our good, depends on having first received and believed Jesus by faith. This is shown in the passages that directly teach us about what the Lord’s Supper is, and how true repentance and faith is necessary to participate for our good. So the first eating of Jesus by faith is most necessary and comes before.  
Jesus gives all His benefits of forgiveness and eternal life to us by faith. Whoever hears His Words and believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life. And Jesus also gives His benefits and blessings in yet another way. Both personal and also communal—together with the gathered believers in Christ, Jesus gives Himself again, in flesh and blood, for us Christians to eat and to drink, in the Lord’s Supper. Forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ blood shed on the cross is personally placed into your mouth. You participate, you have fellowship, with Jesus in His body and blood. It’s marvelous, its mysterious, and it causes people to stumble and take offense, just like Jesus’ words that day. But His words are spirit and they are life. The Father draws us to believe and receive them, so that we too participate with Jesus’ life in this way. Alleluia! Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life! Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      Read Proverbs 9:1-6. What is meant by eating and drinking in verse 5? What is gained by this eating and drinking?

2.      What was Jesus’ concern for in John 6? For keeping the truth of God’s Word, or keeping the multitude of followers who didn’t fully accept His teachings? What benefit is there for us or our hearers, if we sacrifice the truth in order to attract listeners?

3.      Read Leviticus 17:10-15. Why were the Israelites not permitted to eat/drink blood? What was in the blood, and what was the significance of the blood in sacrifice?

4.      What teachings of Jesus stretch us (or you personally) beyond your comfort zone? What is the reason? Why must we bring our sinful flesh into submission to faith?

5.      Read John 6:68. Where in the liturgy do we sing these words, and why?

6.      There are two ways in which we eat of Christ, spiritually by faith, and the oral eating of Christ in the sacrament. Which one is in primary focus in John 6? Who benefits from this eating? When/why is eating without faith be harmful? 1 Corinthians 11:27-32; Matt. 5:23-24

7.      Why is the first kind of eating (spiritual) necessary for us to benefit from the second kind of eating (sacramental) when we eat the Lord’s Supper?

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